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Getting Great Teacher Recommendations

Posted on 09/21/2022, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)

Who Needs Teacher Recommendations?

Many colleges with healthy acceptance rates employ streamlined application processes that do not require teacher recommendations. However, when colleges have more stellar applicants than places in their freshman class, they can't accept every student who has taken rigorous courses and earned great grades and test scores. Therefore, to help choose between highly qualified applicants, admissions officers consider a range of other factors, including teacher recommendations.

What Do Colleges Want Them?

In a nutshell, they're looking for information about what kind of student the applicant has been in high school - and is likely to be in college. To get a better sense of what your teen's teacher will be asked, I strongly suggest that you check out the Teacher Evaluation form that's used by the Common Application, a consortium of over 1,000 colleges. You might be surprised by what you see. Most parents and students imagine that the Teacher Recommendation is nothing more than an open-ended request for the teacher to write whatever he/she considers to be noteworthy about the student. This assumption is wrong on two counts.

First, the narrative portion of the recommendation asks the teacher to address,"what you think is important about this student, including a description of academic and personal characteristics, as demonstrated in your classroom" (emphasis mine). Therefore, if your son is a lackluster English student but a standout soccer player, his English teacher, who is also his soccer coach, is not an ideal recommender.

Second, the narrative is just one of two components of the Common Application Teacher Evaluation form. The second is a Ratings grid that asks the teacher to rate the student on a scale ranging from "Below average" to "One of the top few I've encountered in my career" across multiple dimensions, including "productive discussion" and "disciplined habits." So let's imagine that your daughter's Math Analysis teacher likes her a lot, but that the girl's homework assignments are routinely sloppy and late. The teacher isn't likely to volunteer this information in an open-ended letter, but if expressly asked to rate the student on "disciplined habits," he'll probably feel obliged to answer honestly. Bottom line: review the form with your student - as early in high school as possible.

Now that you know what the evaluation form looks like, how can your student maximize his chances of getting an outstanding review?

Give Teachers Good Things to Say

Few students need to be told that it’s bad form to sit in the back of the room with a gang of friends, guffawing loudly. What many students don’t appreciate, however, is that sitting at the back of the room silently and never raising your hand also falls short of ideal classroom behavior. A teacher can only do so much to make a class enjoyable; in order for it to truly come alive students need to actively engage, so participating in class is basic good citizenship. However, on a more self-interested note, it's also paving the way to a strong recommendation.

When Asking for a Recommendation, Give Your Teacher an Out

When it comes time to approach a teacher to request a recommendation, I advise students to ask, "Do you think you could write me a strong letter of recommendation?" This gives the teacher a graceful escape if he feels he doesn't know the student well enough to write an exemplary letter. Any response from a teacher that falls short of an enthusiastic, "Absolutely," or "I'd be happy to," should prompt a student to consider looking elsewhere.

Avoid the Resume Redux Recommendation

A great teacher recommendation adds insight into what the applicant is like in the classroom rather than simply repeating information that appears elsewhere. It's fine for a teacher who primarily addresses an applicant's classroom attributes to also add that the girl is a fantastic drum major, but that shouldn't be the main focus. For that reason, I don't recommend that students supply teachers with a resume. If a teacher requests one, I'd keep it short and add some bullet points about why the student chose that teacher to write a letter. Perhaps the student excelled at a class project, or enjoyed the lively classroom discussions or lab exercises. Giving a teacher some idea why she was asked to be a recommender will make the teacher's job easier and increase the likelihood that she'll address what the student is hoping to highlight.

Be Considerate and Appreciative 

Writing a good letter of recommendation takes a lot of time and effort, for which teachers are not paid extra. Further, popular teachers of advanced courses may end up with a stack of requests to process, so students need to be considerate, i.e. make sure to ask for recommendations several weeks before they're due. Finally, they should follow up with a timely and sincere thank you.

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Posted on 09/21/2022, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments) « Previous Entry    Next Entry »




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